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No cast of thousands

More artists -- many armed with little more than courage in their own material -- are taking up the challenge of going it alone onstage.

January 12, 2006|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

BILLY CRYSTAL is accustomed to full houses in large theaters when he performs "700 Sundays." But he jokes that the cast party can be a bit lonely -- he's the only one there.

Comedian Tracy Esposito is not accustomed to full houses in the small theaters where she has performed her one-woman show. But she is upfront about her reasons for abandoning her native New York for Los Angeles: Her show is her introduction and calling card to Hollywood.

Performance artist Sandra Tsing Loh says that even if her one-woman show about a mother's frantic search for the right kindergarten lands her an offer for a role on a wacky network TV sitcom, her choice will be clear: She'll stick with acting out her comic frustration with her own words and in her own way, thank you very much.

These three performers are part of an expanding group of artists who for various reasons have taken up the challenge of going it alone onstage, baring their souls to degrees that can be alternately illuminating or embarrassing. Instead of having other performers to play off, these artists want to be left alone, interacting only with their observers -- strangers willing to hear their tales of personal triumph or woe.

Their productions have contributed to an explosion of one-man and one-woman shows around town. Almost any night of the week, local theatergoers can encounter solo performers in spaces ranging from the vastness of the 1,910-seat Wilshire Theatre near Beverly Hills to the intimate no-frills confines of the 99-seat Complex in Hollywood's Santa Monica Boulevard theater district.

"There's no shortage of artists who want to tell their stories, and audiences are always interested in autobiographical pieces," says Terence McFarland, executive director of L.A. Stage Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to generating awareness and support of local creative arts. "From a producer's standpoint, these shows are very inexpensive to put on. And solo shows with multiple characters provide a great platform for a performer to demonstrate their chops."

The art form is flourishing, McFarland says. In 2003, 25 solo shows were produced around town; last year, at least 54 were produced.

"We like to hear personal intimate insights that we can connect to," says Jean-Louis Rodrigue, who teaches theater at UCLA. Rodrigue worked with Heather Raffo on her highly praised "Nine Parts of Desire," a show about the women of Iraq that was recently presented by the Geffen Playhouse at Brentwood Theatre.

Monologues and solo pieces have historically been a mainstay of theater, largely due to their anything-goes nature. Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin, Hal Holbrook, Dame Edna and the late Spaulding Gray are among hundreds of marquee stars who have solidified their status with one-person multi-character shows.

Performances can vary in intensity and energy. Loh, in constant frantic motion during "Mother on Fire," goes into the audience at one point, playfully assaulting them with her exasperation. French film star Isabelle Huppert took another approach when she appeared in "4.48 Psychose," Sarah Kane's play about her suicidal thoughts, jotted down before she hanged herself in 1999. For almost two hours, Huppert stood rooted to the stage of UCLA's Freud Playhouse speaking almost entirely in French.

It was nearly impossible to get a ticket.

Struggling novices are increasingly using one-person shows to showcase their versatility. Two years ago Nia Vardalos went from unknown actress to movie star and Oscar-nominated screenwriter when her "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" sprang from its small theater roots and scored her a brief stint among Hollywood royalty.

UCLA's master of fine arts program requires students to develop one-person shows as their thesis projects.

"The idea is to empower the students," says Judy Moreland, adjunct assistant professor of theater at the university. "It reminds them that they shouldn't wait for the phone call to get work, that there's material they can develop on their own. Personal stories are a very rich aspect of life that they can exploit."

Rodrigue points out Tomlin as a performer who made her one-woman show "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe" seem like a production with a large cast: "She transformed her face and body, and was able to go beyond herself. It was amazing."

What follows is a look at a range of performers getting in touch with their oneness in front of others.

Billy Crystal

CONJURE up images of Billy Crystal's greatest hits, and "teamwork" comes to mind.

Crystal romancing Meg Ryan in "When Harry Met Sally...." Clowning with Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg on the Comic Relief benefits. Calming mobster Robert De Niro in "Analyze This." Horsing around with Jack Palance at the 1992 Oscars.

But the actor-writer-producer has made one of his biggest splashes by going it alone. He calls "700 Sundays" the most satisfying creative endeavor of his wide-ranging career.

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